Working in construction on the coast of California, Daniel Hernandez traveled all the time, picking up quick lunches and dinners at food carts and casual spots.
It was back in Madison when, in 2012, he fell off of a roof and broke his back. Leticia Hernandez, Daniel’s wife, wasn’t keen for him to go back into construction for obvious reasons.
“We were like, 'Oh my god, what are we going to do?'” Leticia Hernandez said. “My mom has a grocery store” — Mercado Marimar on Park Street — “and a food cart, and we saw an ad for a cart. She was like, ‘just try it!’”
Daniel still wore a stabilizing brace from the waist up as the couple turned their attention to painting and refurbishing a new food cart, named Cali Fresh for the cuisine Daniel loved.
Cali Fresh landed a spot on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library Mall four years ago. Most weekdays, it serves classic Cali-Mex burritos, a Santa Monica shrimp quesadilla and a “GIANT” taco inspired by the San Francisco baseball team.
“People responded well on campus,” Leticia Hernandez said. “We’ve grown our clientele.”
Hernandez has a history with restaurants, having worked with her mother, Maria Garcia, on the west side restaurant and club Tres Amigos. For several years, Cali Fresh shared kitchen prep space at Mercado, also home to Garcia’s Taquitos Marimar cart.
But though the cart was going well, space was tight and winters were slow. Between December and March, the Hernandezes began looking for a place to settle, eventually signing a lease on Cahill Main in Fitchburg near Pick ‘n’ Save and the Great Dane.
With Daniel’s artistic eye and construction skills, the family transformed a “big white empty box” that used to be a pet store and opened Tapatios Cocina Mexicana six weeks ago. Daniel does the cooking and Leticia manages the front of the house, where service is unfailingly fast and friendly.
“Tapatio” is a nickname for a person from Guadalajara, Mexico, Daniel’s home city. The restaurant combines Cali Fresh items with “a small piece of Jalisco.”
Just like at the cart, the food at Tapatios favors fresh over fried, crisp but not greasy. The food can be comforting, like sopes ($5), or bright and summery like the tostada tapatia ($6), citrusy shrimp ceviche on crispy tortillas.
Those sopes looked like mini pie shells and tasted like a less-sweet, denser corn muffin. The bottoms could have used a bit more browning, but still they had the homey appeal of an English muffin pizza, heavy with refried beans and a choice of meat, like spiced chorizo or slow-cooked pork.
A salad sprinkled with corn and mango ($9 with chicken) hid cubes of salty, springy queso fresco, another textural win. Five mini tacos ($8.25) fanned around the plate like a bouquet of daisies gave the indecisive diner a few tastes of taqueria greatest hits, from pastor to pollo.
They’re all so good, it’s worth it to pick two or three of the full size tacos ($2.75-$3.50), most dotted with cucumber and cabbage and drizzled with a creamy, smoky chipotle sauce.
If forced to narrow it down, pick the pescado, a fine version of a fried fish taco. The “el tapatio” with melted cheese had a little-bit-of-everything appeal, and the cauliflower was as well-seasoned and filling as the rest.
Tapatios’ generously stuffed quesadillas ($8-$9.50) challenged the usual lunchtime method of grabbing a wedge, pizza-style, with one hand while alternating a Mexican Coke ($2.50) and a paperback novel in the other. They put pub imitators to shame.
A side of cebollitas ($1), fat spring onions barely fried and sprinkled with salt, melted to sweetness inside. Tapatios even does right by a chimichanga ($8), the loosely wrapped tortilla again lightly fried, the fillings ample. It’s among the biggest dishes on the menu but it’s hard not to finish it all.
Leticia Hernandez said the restaurant is looking to expand its menu with dishes like enchiladas, mole and a recent special, fajitas ($14.99 for a trio of steak, shrimp and chicken), a steaming skillet of perfectly seasoned peppers, onions and protein.
Other dishes, like a seriously good (and filling) torta stuffed with carnitas and dunked in salsa ($8) and Jalisco-style barbacoa ($12.50), slow-cooked shredded beef served like stew, are too time intensive for the weekdays. One probably shouldn’t have more than one torta ahogada in a week anyway, though it’s definitely tempting.
Leticia Hernandez hopes to eventually add patio seating, and the Hernandezes are in line for a liquor license so they can sell margaritas. In the meantime, a fresh, sweet cucumber agua fresca ($3) or indulgent horchata ($3) cooled the fire from Tapatios’ hottest chile de árbol sauce.
Tapatios is set up to do takeout but not delivery just yet. The restaurant has been looking into GrubHub and Uber Eats.
“This was our little dream. We saw it come to life,” Leticia Hernandez said. “We have people already who are regulars and we’ve only been open for six weeks. We’re doing something right.”